It was the standout tie in the Third Round draw for the FA Youth Cup, and it played out as such. A match of high quality, drama and tension saw Chelsea upset the odds, and the form book, and send Manchester United crashing out of a competition they have owned down the years by a 3-2 scoreline.
For 40 minutes, it wasn’t a scoreline you’d have predicted. Paul McGuinness’ United side controlled the first half and really should have been three goals to the good, if not more. They didn’t take those chances, and were made two pay by a quickfire double salvo from the Blues to close the first half, then a late second half effort after a hard-working spell. A late consolation from Danny Welbeck made things nervous for stoppage time but the youngsters saw themselves home.
Clement started with a team mixed of those with experience from this competition last year, and those making their first appearances in it. As he did last season, the team used in league action at the weekend was retained for the midweek Cup outing, meaning schoolboy Rohan Ince partnered Reserve defender Jeffrey Bruma at the back, with captain Daniel Philliskirk anchoring a three man midfield in front of them. Gael Kakuta and Jacob Mellis, two integral pieces of the run to the Final last year, lined up in more advanced roled, with Jacopo Sala and the prolific Frank Nouble wide of Italian hot-shot Fabio Borini.
In an eerily empty Old Trafford – attendance around 1200 – Chelsea looked a bit daunted early on, afraid to get involved in the game and were being outworked and outpassed by their hosts. Welbeck, fresh from a first senior goal against Stoke a couple of weeks ago, broke clear inside five minutes but failed to make his mind up when faced with just Nick Heimann to beat, and the German was able to smother the ball at his feet. It was a let-off, but not one the visitors heeded, as in the 8th minute, they fell behind.
Uncertainty in the Chelsea defense between Ince and Nikki Ahmed allowed United in behind, where their own schoolboy, Ra’vel Morrison, was given a clear sight of goal. He settled the ball well and opened his body to pass beyond Heimann into the net with aplomb. It was expected, it was deserved, and it was a lead for United at Old Trafford. More ominous was the fact Chelsea couldn’t get the ball from the red shirts, who were beginning to enjoy themselves, even if it wasn’t always productive possession.
On rare forays forward, United goalie Gary Woods wasn’t tested. Ben Gordon went marauding and saw an effort skid wide of the post, but it wasn’t threatening. The movement in the Red Devils’ attack confused the Chelsea defence and nearly resulted in a second goal. Morrison danced his way through, and past Heimann, but didn’t take his chance. He tried instead to beat Ince and waltz pass everyone, but wasted his chance, instead laying off to Matthew James. The United captain fizzed a low effort to the gaping goal, but Ahmed atoned for his earlier error with a great clearance. It hit Bruma and presented Morrison with an open goal of his own, but in his desire for an emphatic finish, he merely slammed the ball high, wide, and not at all handsome.
It proved crucial, because swiftly after, Chelsea hit them with a one-two punch that floored the young hosts. The equaliser came from a neat clipped ball over the top from the impressive Philliskirk. It looked to be beyond the reach of a blue shirt but Kakuta gave his all in a lunge, and lucked out with a prod into the bottom corner. A player of such majestic skill and brilliance was on the scoresheet through nothing more than maximum effort – a sign of Chelsea on the night.
The goal that put them in the lead came courtesy of a mistake from Man Utd centre-back Oliver Gill. Gill, son of United Chairman David, was a surprise selection ahead of Kenny Strickland, and struggled all night. He gifted possession to Philliskirk, who fed Nouble on the edge of the box. He let the ball run to his left foot and slammed a missile into the top corner at the Stretford End, giving Woods no chance at all.
Clement’s team talk suddenly took a whole new look. Instead of finding a way back into the game, they had to consider ways to preserve and build upon their lead. It helped that the two goals had left United shell-shocked, and it took a good fifteen second half minutes for them to come out of their stupor and begin to make things happen once more. Morrison was tiring, Federico Macheda was having a quiet night, and Welbeck, whilst showing nice touches, was all too briefly involved. Instead, chances fell to others, notably long range tries from Ollie Norwood and substitute Davide Petrucci, himself a surprise omission after a Man of the Match performance at the weekend.
Chelsea, by now, were looking comfortable and confident in possession. Kakuta exhibited one moment of sheer brilliance, skinning four Reds down the right touchline with consumnate ease, but wasted his chance. Philliskirk sliced a shot wide when coming across the box to him, but the momentum was with the visitors. Conor Clifford and Billy Knott entered the game to give fresher legs, and inside the last ten minutes the clinching goal arrived.
Mellis made a run in behind from deep, into the right channel. He held the ball to wait for support, which eventually arrived in the form of Borini. A loose ball fell into his stride and he kept his cool to drive it low and away from Woods into the corner. It was a goal he may not have scored last season, but this year’s Borini is a far more dangerous player, and the game was in the bag.
Or was it? With the game ticking into stoppage time, some generous Chelsea defending allowed Welbeck to prod home at the near post to set up a nervy last three minutes. Nouble kept the ball at the other end for long enough to frustrate United, and see the game to the Final whistle. After a poor first half performance in which Man Utd looked like they were going to run away with it, they shot themselves in the foot and let Chelsea back in it. The Blues needed no second invitation and after impressing in the second half, just about deserved their win.
Could 2009 be their year? Not a bad way to start…
Team: Heimann, Ahmed, Ince, Bruma, Gordon, Philliskirk (c), Kakuta (Knott), Mellis (MacEachran), Sala (Clifford), Nouble, Borini
Goals: Kakuta 42, Nouble 45, Borini 83